digital humanities

digital humanities tactics

I've been taken up with online teaching and summer administration business, so I'm a little behind on this one, but Matthew Kirschenbaum discussed the topic of digital humanities tactics at the TILTS conference a few weeks ago. Here is an audio recording of his talk. His discussion is at least framed by the Town Hall discussion of the digital humanities in which I participated at Computers and Writing, but most of the talk is actually an analysis of Twitter. Kirschenbaum's argument, summarized around the 9-10 minute point, is to note that the "network effects" of social media, Twitter in particular, play a significant role in the definition of what digital humanities is.

I want to return to network effects in moment, but I would be remiss if I didn't respond to Kirschenbaum's brief mention of the Town Hall (and me in particular). I actually think Kirschenbaum and I agree on much of what is said here, except on his characterization of my own position. (And btw this all comes up in the first few minutes of the talk if you want a listen.)  So we certainly agree on the history of the term digital humanities in that when we look at organizations, journals, conferences, and even the NEH office, digital humanities is almost wholly equated with what was, until a decade ago, called humanities computing. Now that does get a little confusing as humanities computing is an interdisciplinary field with many manifestations and certainly the last decade has seen considerable growth and differentiation in practices. Kirschenbaum argues that the definition of digital humanities in Wikipedia is actually about as good a definition as one could get. Here is what it says:

The digital humanities is an area of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. Sometimes called humanities computing, the field has focused on the digitization and analysis of materials related to the traditional disciplines of the humanities. Digital Humanities currently incorporates both digitized and born-digital materials and combines the methodologies from the traditional humanities disciplines (such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies) with tools provided by computing (such as data visualisation, data retrieval, computational analysis) and digital publishing.

So here is where the confusion begins for me. I don't think of myself as a digital humanist (though others often identify me that way, on my campus for example). I don't think that, in general, scholars in computers and writing think of themselves as digital humanists (though some do). However the field of computers and writing is certainly implicated in that first sentence. The second sentence then says digital humanities is humanities computing and ignores the work done by others in the humanities "concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities."

Kirschenbaum characterizes my argument as one that says digital humanities should include fields beyond humanities computing and that I am making an argument for democratic inclusiveness. This is not my argument, so obviously I haven't done a good job of making myself clear. To be clear, I don't think that people in humanities computing need to change their organizations, journals, conferences, etc., etc. to include other fields. I'm sure there can be (and are) productive points of collaboration between humanities computing and other humanities fields "concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities," but that's a different matter. I am not the person who ever makes these kinds of "should" arguments. 

My argument is that the term "digital humanities" does include all the fields "concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities." Not that it "should," but that semantically, indeed tautologically, the term digital humanities unavoidably includes those in the humanities doing digital work. No one in computers and writing or new media studies or other fields asked for this term to be invented. And likely when the term was taken up by these various individuals, publishers, agencies and such, they were not trying to create an inclusive term. But they did. And now we are all stuck with it. We are all stuck with defining ourselves in relation to the term. Let's put it this way, if a scholar is "concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities" and wants a grant from the NEH, either she is going to have to apply to the Office of Digital Humanities or make some explanation about how, even though she does digital work and is a humanist, she isn't a "digital humanist." Now maybe a government bureaucrat can appreciate how such absurdities can get created, but most of us would find that kind of parsing unacceptable. 

Rhetoricians in English Studies should be familiar with such shenanigans. For decades we've had battles over the shape of English, mostly with literary scholars but also with the other fields in English like English Education, Creative Writing, and so on. If one examines the MLA job list in English over the past decade, it is fairly evident that fewer than 50% of the jobs are in literary fields. Nevertheless it would not be uncommon to encounter literary scholars who equate English with literary studies and imagine departments where everyone is aligned in neat, period-defined rows. I see this digital humanities business as a similar kind of intellectual error. This is not a "should" argument for fairness or inclusiveness or even sharing resources. I don't want to make an argument about what English departments "should" look like. I don't want to make an argument about what DH should look like. It's just a misperception of who is in the room.

Instead, like Kirschenbaum, I think we need to look at the "network effects" that shape those practices "concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities." He points to social media and Twitter in particular, though he certainly also mentions the larger institutional forces like centers, NEH ODH, conferences, etc. Though I haven't counted heads, I am fairly certain that most scholars "concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities" are not in "humanities computing." In fact, as far as I can tell the Computers and Writing conference is larger than the Digital Humanities conference in terms of numbers of attendees. So there is a broader network of non-humanities computing scholars who do work that otherwise fits into this definition of the digital humanities who will have an impact on the future of the digital in the humanities.

I'm not sure the overall effect is "tactical," but there are many tactics involved. This post is one tactical maneuver I suppose. What is that maneuver? What is my tactic here? In his talk Kirschenbaum says that the digital humanities have reached their apotheosis. He points to the existing infrastructure and network effects as evidence that DH has arrived. I would disagree. Though many of these fields have been around for decades, and there has been an obvious expansion of interest in the digital in the last few years, I think that the crucial moment is still before us. I would argue that the current generation of humanities scholars are at a real tipping point (though perhaps with some historical perspective we will later realize that the point tipped years ago). In the next few decades we could all be like art history or philosophy at most colleges–small departments with faculty you can count on one hand–with writing instruction being the one last substantial vestige of the humanities (undertaken by contingent faculty, of course). Or the humanities will undergo significant paradigm shifts. Not one collective, unifying shift, but related shifts in response to the digital world. 

I don't think we know what that shift will look like, if it comes at all. I do think that all of us "concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities" are poised to contribute to that shift in way that others who do not have such concerns are not. I would characterize humanities computing, i.e. those who have "focused on the digitization and analysis of materials related to the traditional disciplines of the humanities," as making an effort to remediate the traditional interests of the humanities in a way that others doing digital and humanities work (if not "digital humanities" work) are not. I don't know that this has to be a point of contention. Certainly there is room for all of us. No doubt I have made a career, such as it is, out of doing work that is "not English," "not rhetoric," "not humanities," and "not digital humanities." So I suppose my tactic is and always has been one of departure rather than arrival. I think it's fair to criticize my work in those terms. And as such, perhaps it is my own prejudice, but I don't believe the digital humanities have arrived. I think they are only beginning to depart.

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